VERIFY: A Russian source pushed the narrative of U.S. civil conflict

The East Stratcom Task Force’s EUvsDisinfo newsletter claimed a 4 November segment on Russian external service RT helped push a narrative that American “political polarisation was driving the country towards a violent civil conflict.” However, a search of the captioning file for the segment failed to find any mention of the phrase “civil conflict” or natural variations of it.

Background: The United States had a presidential election on 3 November 2020.

RT is a Russian Federation external service; a state-backed, externally focused media operation similar to NHK World, Radio Prague, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Press TV, etc. American and European observers have criticized it for sometimes hosting guests whose views are on the ideological fringe.

EUvsDisinfo is a website and newsletter affiliated with the European Union’s External Action Service largely dedicated to complaining about RT. It presents its frequent complaints as efforts to arrest the spread of what it calls “disinformation.”

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The Claim: According to a 24 November 2020 analysis column on EUvsDisinfo, in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, “[pro-Kremlin] outlets extensively pushed a broader narrative that electoral fraud and political polarisation are driving the country towards a violent civil conflict.” To prove the claim, EUvsDisinfo linked to a 27-minute RT video posted to on 4 November 2020. The video is a segment of the network’s U.S. election coverage. No additional information or evidence was provided.

Investigation: Fact-checking EUvsDisinfo articles is inherently difficult. They’re usually a whirlwind of breathlessly incoherent claims shotgunned out using creative forms of pidgin English. Like many EUvsDisinfo stories, the article in which the claim is made is limited in details and anonymously authored. It takes the form of a staggering number of vague allegations peppered with dozens of links to longform videos from what EUvsDisinfo describes as “pro-Kremlin” outlets.

To fact-check the EUvsDisinfo claim we, first, accessed the closed captioning file of the original RT broadcast via a commercial monitoring service and searched it for the phrase “civil conflict.” This returned no results. We then broadened our search to include the phrase “civil war.” This also returned no results. Finally, we searched all closed captioning files for all RT programs broadcast on 4 November for either the phrase “civil conflict” or “civil war.” Again, no results.

Second, we reviewed the 27-minute clip in question for any broader predictions of future civil conflict arising from political polarization or “electoral fraud” that might not specifically use the phrases “civil conflict” or “civil war.”

We found several segments about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of the summer of 2020 and many of these contained footage of civil unrest. However, they were generally explainer segments whose tone and imagery were consistent with the charged way in which U.S. domestic media covered BLM protests. In a November 3 analysis, for instance, progressive media monitoring outfit FAIR reported that American “media reports were quick to blame BLM for initiating violence, portraying them as senseless rioters in an otherwise peaceful and tranquil society.”

Aside from these short segments, which were consistent with reporting narratives seen in American mainstream media, the only two instances in which something roughly equivalent to the idea of civil conflict was mentioned came at 8 minutes, 33 seconds into the segment and, again, at 20 minutes, 20 seconds into the segment.

  • At 8’33”, the RT anchor mentioned that four persons were stabbed in Washington, D.C. and that overnight protests had occurred after the election. This mention lasted 17 seconds — or approximately one-percent of the entire video length — and contained factually accurate information also reported by The Daily Beast and Forbes.
  • At 20’20”, the RT anchor stated that “the big difference between now and 20 years ago is the violence we’ve seen on the streets.” This analysis was consistent with analyses presented by non state-backed media and professional observers. For instance, in a pre-election report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) commented that “it is rare that the United States’ quadrennial elections seem at risk of spawning, or being influenced by, violent unrest. But 2020 is different. Indeed, commentators tend to identify only two major precedents in the last 150 years.” The ICG goes on to identify the level of pre-election street violence in the United States as a distinguishing factor between the 2020 election and previous elections, including that of 2000, a claim essentially identical to that made by RT.

In neither case did the mention in question predict future violence based on political polarization, or make claims inconsistent with the general tone of mainstream media reporting.

Rating: EUvsDisinfo is staffed by a small number of persons tasked with producing a staggering volume of rebuttals, day in and day out, to RT content. But, despite the workload, theirs is a relatively easy task; they accomplish it within a mediasphere which has already largely discredited and marginalized the Russian Federation’s external services. What’s more, EUvsDisinfo’s small audience is essentially a Hallelujah chorus of those already certain of nefarious, Moscow-originated intrigues. They require no convincing and no evidence to stimulate their fetishized belief in vast, foreign plots and elaborate, international conspiracies being orchestrated through a low-rated satellite TV channel.

EUvsDisinfo, therefore, faces no real external pressure for editorial accuracy. They make claims of things that sound like something RT would probably say. Whether or not it was actually said is irrelevant. As proof, they slap up random links to RT pages that they’ve clearly never actually reviewed, apparently confident that no one else has done so either.

In this case, someone else did. And we discovered their claim to be lacking any factual basis. The assertion that a 4 November 2020 segment on RT claimed that “electoral fraud and political polarisation are driving the country towards a violent civil conflict” is FALSE. The larger assertion that this false claim was part of a “broader narrative” was presented without any evidence or methodological explanation and is, therefore, IMPOSSIBLE TO CHECK.

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